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Huawei Technologies secretly backs US Research, awarding millions in prizes

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By Kate O’Keeffe


Huawei Technologies Co., the Chinese telecommunications giant blacklisted by the US, is secretly funding cutting-edge research at American universities including Harvard through an independent Washington-based foundation.

 


Huawei is the sole funder of a research competition that has awarded millions of dollars since its inception in 2022 and attracted hundreds of proposals from scientists around the world, including those at top US universities that have banned their researchers from working with the company, according to documents and people familiar with the matter.


The competition is administered by the Optica Foundation, an arm of the nonprofit professional society Optica, whose members’ research on light underpins technologies such as communications, biomedical diagnostics and lasers.


The foundation “shall not be required to designate Huawei as the funding source or program sponsor” of the competition and “the existence and content of this Agreement and the relationship between the Parties shall also be considered Confidential Information,” says a nonpublic document reviewed by Bloomberg.


The findings reveal one strategy Shenzhen, China-based Huawei is using to remain at the forefront of funding international research despite a web of US restrictions imposed over the past several years in response to concerns that its technology could be used by Beijing as a spy tool.


Applicants and university officials contacted by Bloomberg as well as one of the competition’s judges said they hadn’t known of Huawei’s role in funding the program until they were asked by a reporter. A cross-section of applicants interviewed by Bloomberg said they believed the money came from the foundation and not a foreign entity.


There are 11 opportunities on the Optica Foundation website listing “Early Career Prizes & Fellowships.” All but the Huawei-funded competition — which awards $1 million per year, or twenty times the next most-lucrative annual cash prize on the site — list individual and corporate financial contributors. 


A Huawei spokesman said the company and the Optica Foundation created the competition to support global research and promote academic communication. The spokesman said Huawei’s name was kept private to keep the contest from being seen as promotional and that there was no ill intent.


Liz Rogan, Optica’s chief executive officer, said in a statement that some foundation donors “prefer to remain anonymous, including US donors” and that “there is nothing unusual about this practice.”


Rogan said the Huawei donation had been reviewed by outside legal counsel and won the approval of the foundation’s board. “We are completely transparent with the funding and support of the Foundation programs with the Optica Foundation Board, the Optica Board and staff,” she said.


The secretive effort in Washington stands in contrast with public initiatives by Huawei in several European countries. France and Germany, for example, are home to company-branded scientific hubs despite a European Commission recommendation that the company’s equipment be barred from member state networks over security risks.


Optica Foundation’s 2023 annual report acknowledges Huawei in a section listing “highest-level donors” who have given more than $1 million since the organization’s founding more than two decades ago. US tech giants Google and Meta Platforms Inc. are among those in the second-highest tier of donors who have given $200,000 or more.


The report does not specify when any of the donors gave money, what it was used for, or how much they gave. 


Fearful of losing funding from federal sources including the Pentagon and National Science Foundation because of security concerns, many US universities have told researchers in recent years to cut ties with Huawei. Schools have also beefed up policies requiring academics to disclose foreign funding.


Within US Rules

 


The foundation’s secret funding arrangement likely doesn’t violate US Commerce Department regulations blocking people and organizations from sharing technology with Huawei, said Kevin Wolf, a partner at Akin who specializes in export controls.


That’s because such rules don’t apply to the type of research the competition is soliciting — science that’s meant to be published, Wolf said. If Huawei were subject to Treasury Department sanctions, however, the activity probably wouldn’t be legal, he said.


Research security specialists said the lack of transparency underlying the arrangement nonetheless violates the spirit of university and US funding-agency policies requiring researchers to disclose whether they’re receiving foreign money. 


They also said some of the resulting research is likely to have both defense and commercial relevance. Topics the Optica Foundation singles out in an online post as being “of interest” include “undersea and space-based solutions for the global communications grid” and “high-sensitivity optical sensors and detectors.”


Inside the World IT Show in South Korea

 


Huawei has been subject to US restrictions for the past several years over concerns that its technology could be used by China to spy.

 


“It’s a bad look for a prestigious research foundation to be anonymously accepting money from a Chinese company that raises so many national security concerns for the US government,” said James Mulvenon, a defense contractor who has worked on research security issues and co-authored a seminal book on Chinese industrial espionage. 


Jeff Stoff, founder of the nonprofit Center for Research Security & Integrity, said funding the competition could effectively let Huawei influence “what research projects it would like to see without having to contract directly with academic institutions.” He said the company could use the arrangement to recruit talent by sponsoring applicants of interest and acquiring intellectual property from their research in the future.


Texas A&M University’s Chief Research Security Officer Kevin Gamache said the school had not known of Huawei’s involvement in the competition before being contacted by Bloomberg. The university then looked into the matter and learned that two of its researchers had applied for awards, both unaware of the source of the competition’s funding.


“We have processes that would identify and prevent associations with Huawei unless they were being heavily obfuscated like this,” Gamache said.


At least one applicant to the competition came from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which in 2019 said it would cease accepting new engagements with Huawei. An MIT spokeswoman declined to comment beyond pointing out the university’s policy.


Universities’ Winners 

 


The Optica Foundation required universities whose researchers were awarded funding to accept the money on the winners’ behalf. Several of them, including Harvard, the University of Southern California, and Vanderbilt as well as The University of British Columbia and Wilfrid Laurier in Canada, declined to comment on whether they would take action in response to Bloomberg’s findings.


A Harvard spokesman said the university has a policy against working with Huawei. 


Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, who’s chairman of the Optica Foundation board that Optica’s CEO said had approved the Huawei arrangement, said in a statement: “As the Foundation grows and continues to explore avenues for broadening our programming, we are committed to ensuring clear transparency policies related to our funding sources.”


A spokesman for USC, which has had two winners over the past two years, said it follows US regulations on reporting foreign gifts and contracts. “There were no indicators to suspect any foreign involvement at the time the payments were made, and we similarly have no such indications at present,” according to a statement provided by the spokesman. 


USC engineering professor Alan Willner, who has been a judge for the competition, didn’t respond to requests for comment.


A spokeswoman for the University of British Columbia said the school’s relationship is with the Optica Foundation and that neither the university nor its winning applicant had been aware at the time the prize was awarded that it was funded by a third party.


Representatives from Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Arizona, which has one of the top optics schools in the US, didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment about Huawei funding their winning applicants.


Huawei Optical Expert

 


Huawei became a member of the foundation’s parent organization Optica in late 2021 right as it committed to sponsoring the competition, according to a person familiar with the matter. It plans to fund the event for a decade, according to the nonpublic documents reviewed by Bloomberg, which would mean awarding a total of $10 million based on past disbursements.


The foundation is currently accepting proposals for the 2024 application cycle, which runs through May 21, with plans to grant 10 winners $100,000 each for the third year in a row.


Huawei has one executive on the competition’s 10-person selection committee. The Hong Kong-based scientist, Xiang Liu, is Huawei’s Chief Optical Standards Expert, according to his LinkedIn profile.


In 2021 he published a book about 5G communications technology after spending more than seven years at Huawei’s US unit Futurewei, the profile says. Prior to earning a doctorate at Cornell, Liu studied at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Physics, which operates under the State Council of China. 


When the Optica competition kicked off in 2022, Liu in a LinkedIn post thanked the foundation “for this great initiative” and said he would be serving on the selection panel. Chad Stark, Optica Foundation’s executive director and the signatory on the documents seen by Bloomberg, thanked Liu for sharing information about the competition. He didn’t acknowledge Huawei’s role as the sole funder.


Last month, Liu was advertised as a moderator of a virtual Optica session about “the cutting-edge technologies revolutionizing connectivity between data centers.” While Optica listed the panelists’ employers — all major US tech companies — in event marketing materials, it described Liu only as a fellow at Optica and another professional society.


Liu deferred questions to Huawei, and Stark didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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